A Short Introduction to the Buddha

The Buddha, who is said to have inspired the “religion” of Buddhism, has been a major influence on my life and thinking since I was sixteen. And today I continue to practice as a non-monk.

There are plenty of Buddhists and plenty of environmentalists out there, but very few are consciously “ecoBuddhists” or “Buddho-environmentalists”. And although I do not think I am one I have chosen to write about sustainability and Buddhism, and how they relate to me. Most people who find this page have probably reached it via the sustainability aspect of my blog rather than through the Buddha aspect. So I feel I owe it to my readers that I explain the Buddha and Buddhism in order not to be misunderstood. And to my Buddhists readers I need to explain why I feel sustainability is an important issue for them as well.

The Buddha
The Buddha lived about 2,500 years ago around the area now can be loosely referred as the Indo-Nepalese border. He claimed neither to be a god, nor to be a son of a god, nor to be a prophet. He claimed to be just an ordinary man. Although he was born a prince (and I do not know of any princes who can claim to have special powers) it is said he renounced his noble life in order to find true happiness.

In being an ordinary man then it is difficult to say what he taught could be called “religion”. While I am aware that the Buddhisms of today may have become religion-like some time in the past it doesn’t necessarily follow that what he taught was religion. And this is a point I hold as truly important.

As I wrote, the Buddha was born a prince. And until he left home to find happiness, he had lived a life of luxury and beauty, sheilded from the truth of the world by his father. He was about 29 when he made this decision.

After studying under the two most renowned teachers of the time he left them to search for an even greater truth. And at the age of 35 he came to a great realization and from then on he called “the Buddha” or the enlightened one.

His teaching
1.
Being an ordinary man claiming no divinity it is only logical that what he taught would be nothing but mundane (not extraordinary). And that was the way it was – there were no gods, no supreme power, nothing there that is greater the physical world in his scheme of things.

His taught that all things are marked by impermanence. And it is interesting to note that even Buddhism did not stand outside of this truth according to him. No other religion, teaching or philosophy has stated this.

So man’s folly had been to think there could be anything permanent to hold onto. This mistake the Buddha called suffering. If one accepted that nothing is permanent then one will come to see that our actions are suffering ridden and will lead to more suffering as such.

The last main logical idea that follows from impermanence and suffering is that there is no soul or no-self. It is simply the greatest hinderance to us for finding “true happiness”. The idea of no-self too has no equivalent in any other religion.

So with the understanding of these three characteristics of existence he taught that it was possible to end suffering, the “true happiness” he had been seeking. Today we know this basic teaching as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths are statements which proclaim the idea of suffering, its cause, its cure and the curing procedure. And the curing procedure here is the Noble Eightfold Path, which covers every aspect of how we should live and practice in order reach the goal of true happiness or enlightenment.

2.
Before I wrap up this short introduction to the Buddha and his teaching there are two more concepts in Buddhism which I feel need clarification. They are 1) reincarnation and karma, and 2) the Buddha’s view of the mind.

Reincarnation is neither an idea unique nor original to Buddhism. It was a concept borrowed from Hinduism, the dominant religion in the Buddha’s culture during his lifetime. And the idea of karma likewise was also borrowed from Hinduism. However they differ to Hindu concepts.

Hinduism espouses that one need to seek to be reborn in higher and higher planes to finally unite with an ultimate being. But since the Buddha rejected the notion of an ultimate power or being ,the goal of reincarnation has to be necessarily different. The Buddha’s concept is one where one must try to end reincarnation (the cycle of rebirth) which is the true happiness.

Again karma in Hinduism is about producing good karma and avoiding bad karma in order to be reborn in higher and higher planes, again, until one unites with the ultimate being. Thus the Buddha did not see the production of karma – good or bad – as something that is desirable but rather something to be avoided all together. Moreover, the effects of karma only operated on the original producer of the karma. So what we do has no real effect on people, place and things around us, and to think so is incorrect. This is a sticking point for many Western non-Buddhists (and some Buddhists as well) but it really only has to be worked through in order to be grasped.

And the second concept – the mind – is another sticking point for many Westerners. In the Buddha’s teaching the mind is thought of as a sense organ, like the eye, ear, tongue, nose or skin. Its primary function is to comprehend the information from the other senses, as well as, to create new information. In other words, it is not a place of the soul or the seat of a personality. With the West’s emphasis on a soul and personality it becomes hard to accept that the mind can be a mere sensory organ.

I have given here an explanation of my personal understanding of the Buddha. It may not be how most Buddhists would explain it but I have no apologies for this. If you think I am wrong in something please comment about it.

Also I have yet to write about Buddhism. I will try follow up with a new post in the near future.

7 thoughts on “A Short Introduction to the Buddha

  1. greentogroove

    Great introduction. I love the point that ‘Buddhism’ as the Buddha taught was not a religion.

    I had a question – I understand the part of ‘no gods’… am I remembering correctly that many Buddhists (Tibetans are the first that come to mind) still believe in gods, nonetheless?

    I had not heard that concept of karma before…. I would love some reference material to read further about the Buddha’s views on this. The true attainment of enlightment is sometimes ‘put off’ by some, correct? Called bodhisattvas (spelling?)? Is that what the Dalai Llama is considered?… what is your take the him?

    Sorry so many questions… I’ve spoken with many Western Buddhists, but none from the East. I realize that perspectives dramatically alter ultimate interpetation on these subjects – that’s why I’m excited to here your thoughts on it all.

    Reply
  2. signature103 Post author

    Yes, gods were later assimulated to make Buddhism more palatable for the cultures which believed in them. This happened in India and later in China. It is a form of cheating and should not have occurred in the first.

    And a quick note on the Buddhist concept of gods – they are impermanent unlike the Judeo-Christo-Islamic god who is seen as eternal. So they will eventual disappear just like you and I, only gods exist a lot longer than we do.

    I can give you book references with sections on karma if that is you want.

    And yes, bodhisattva are delaying their final enlightenment. I think the Dalai Lama is a bodhisattva because he is the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. I honestly don’t know what to make of him. “The jury is out on this one.”

    I hope this answers your questions.

    Reply
  3. fieldmouse

    a brief note on karma:

    “Karma- (Sanskrit) This term is key in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and is even used (or misused) in today’s Western cultures. Karma is often associated now days with some kind of cosmic law of retribution, but its literal meaning is simply ‘action’. Because all actions take place in a universe in which every thing/event is interrelated to all other thing/events, it has come to mean also the law conditioning action, that is, cause and effect. Alan Watts notes “Karma does not mean ‘Fate,’ except in the sense that man cannot escape from the effects of his own deeds, though so far as the deeds themselves are concerned he is free to choose.” So here one’s karma is simply the circumstances under which one lives, resulting from choices.
    The three main kinds of karma are chains of causes and effects which come from actions of the body (deeds), the mouth (speech) and mind or consciousness. One’s present experience is a product of all of these three kinds of actions in the past; likewise, future conditions depend on what one does in the present. Can be compared to the statement of Jesus that you reap what you sow. ”

    from: http://www.yakrider.com/Buddha/Zen/zen_terms.htm

    Watts also notes in The Way of Zen (which contains a brief history of the inflences of Zen), that Karma is about ‘conditioned action’:

    ” From The Way of Zen we get on pages 69, 73, 74 and 81 some observations about Samsara/Karma and the nature of experience:
    “The active principle of the Round (Samsara) is known as Karma, or conditioned action, which arises from a motive seeking a result – the type of action which always requires the necessity for further action.”
    He then goes on to say that Zen takes Samsara as ‘the process of re-birth from one moment to moment, so that one is re-born so long as one identifies oneself with a continuing ego, which reincarnates itself afresh at each moment in time.’ Going further into this we get:
    “Through awareness is seen that the separation of the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known, the subject from the object, is purely abstract. There is not the mind on the one hand and its experience on the other; there is just the process of experiencing in which there is nothing to be grasped as an object, and no-one, as a subject, to grasp it.”
    (In other words, as put in my book, there is no me having an experience, I am the experience).”

    from: http://www.purifymind.com/Zenfaq.htm

    Reply
  4. signature103 Post author

    Firstly, I think translation of the term ‘karma’ from that site is not good. A better translation of the term is ‘deed’. Secondly, the definition is all over the place. It lumps the Hindu term with the Buddhist (and Taoist!) together like they are all the same thing – they are not. And thirdly, it is a Zen definition, as is the Alan Watts interpretation. It is specific to Zen understanding and excludes all other definitions by other schools or sects.

    Karma should be related to the idea of no-self in order to make sense. It is different to conventional thinking and needs a shift in paradigm in order to be understood.

    I do not have the time to write a full length reply so this will have to do for now. Just to say, I make a great distinction between the Buddha and Buddhism, as well as between different types of Buddhism.

    Reply
  5. Caffe

    According to many Tibetan Buddhists, esepcieally of its subset schools of belief (one of four, I forget which), the Dalai Lama is supposed the reincarnation of the boddhisattva of compassion, often known as Tara or Quan Yin in Chinese, or Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit. But he is like the pope in one aspect, he is only the spiritual leader of a small sect of believers (in christianity is raman catholcism), not for all of buddhism.

    Reply

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